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13 July 2017

Lightning Strikes Causing More Forest Fires in the Arctic

As the world grows steadily warmer, the risk of forest fires escalates, but not for the reason that you might think.

Thunderstorms are known to follow periods of high temperature, and with climate change leading to more frequent bouts of hot weather, the likelihood of lightning naturally increases. A new study has found that in the last four decades, the rate of fires caused by lightning has gone from 2% to 5% a year, posing a threat all over the world. This includes places like the boreal forests and the permafrost tundra.

It’s all part of a complex climate feedback loop which continues to worsen as the process continues. Carbon dioxide and methane that’s trapped in the Arctic permafrost is freed when forest fires occur, and these gases contribute to climate change. The more of it that gets released, the higher the likelihood of lightning-induced fires.

“We will keep having more lightning in these northern areas,” says Sander Veraverbeke, author of the study, “so it will keep happening more and more. The frequency of these fires in tundra regions will likely increase, and that has obvious implications for the release of more carbon because those are areas where the fires burns in permafrost soil, so it could release quite a bit, not just the year of the fire but decades after the fire.”

Research into the connection between this phenomenon and climate change has been carried out before, with the discovery that every degree Celsius that the planet grows warmer, the chances of lightning strikes rises by 12%. Judging by the projected warming that’s been put in place, that could mean an increase of 50% before this century ends.

What’s more, a higher rate of forest fires can affect the composition of soil, helping the trees to grow by removing a problematic layer of organic matter. Although this sounds like it should be a good thing, greater tree growth leaves more fuel for future fires. If these trees were to grow above the snow line, they would also end up absorbing some of the sun’s rays and speeding up the rate of melting.

“It’s a type of feedback that people didn’t necessarily appreciate, and it shows a vulnerability to the tundra, the potential for fires to move into this biome,” James Randerson, co-author of the study, points out.

There’s still a great deal that needs to be researched about this topic to better understand how the future will play out, but this study shows yet another concerning impact that climate change can have on the fragile Arctic environment. 

James Darvill

James is a passionate scriptwriter and reluctant poet with a talent for the dystopian. When he’s not staying up late watching the Simpsons he’s beating the world at Mario Kart, always with a glass of wine in hand.